I cannot remember where I heard this phrase — I imagine it was while I was at Purdue — but whenever I think of setting, it springs to mind. Sometimes characters just seem to float in a void, especially in works belonging to fledgling writers. There is nothing around, or at least, the reader is not given any hints that there is anything more than a blank white room: hence the term, hobos in outer space or characters floating around in an environment that is absent. While the phrase is not necessarily accurate, there is actually a lot of things in outer space, it does bring humor and thought to writing settings.
Settings surround your character no matter where they go, or they should. Settings can bring realism, in addition to relaying information about the culture your characters resides in or information about your character — especially if a scene occurs in their bedroom. Setting can also set the mood or provide foreshadowing, such as with the famous Snoopy literary ace starting line: “It was a dark and stormy night…” The presence of certain objects in settings provide a sense of foreboding to the reader, though writers need to spice things up and not rely on the cliches, like a dark, stormy night. And don’t forget plot relative items in settings, they should be prominent in setting prior to plot use.
Setting details can be relayed in many different ways from exposition to characters interacting with it, the latter being one of the better ways introduce setting details. Use all five senses to relay setting details through your point of view character, have then really interact with their environment within reason — characters do not need to be licking everything unless that is in character.
However, like with all things writing, writers need to avoid info dropping; there should be no whole paragraph after paragraph relaying setting information since that will only make the reader skip over sections or yawn. However, writers should consider writing out details outside of their manuscript, especially if a certain setting is used repeatedly, to prevent inaccuracies from occurring when you return to that particular setting. Not all the details you record in a separate notebook or document will make it into a manuscript, nor should they, unless you simply wrote a sentence or two.
Historical fiction writers have a particularly rough spot with settings:Not only do they have to use settings, they also have to put hours into research to make sure they are historically accurate — it is a tedious process, but rewarding, especially if you have reader compliment your attention to the details. Speculative fiction writers also have to be aware of those details, which harkens back to the age old: Know your world inside and out. In addition, speculative fiction writers also have to relay information on settings that might be completely foreign to earthly readers, which can have its own challenges, particularly with the overburdening desire to info dump.
Some final advice, look at your favorite books/authors to see how they handled settings, dissect them to see what worked or what could have been improved. Seek out books that you have heard are good from friends or fellow writers and dissect those as well.
More Information Of Setting
Also visit my friend’s blog, she gives several great ideas for improving settings in your stories. Also be sure to check out some of her other articles, she is running a whole “Why Good Writing Matters” series with some great tips.